Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Gonzales, meet potential smoking gun

Well, I've been pretty easy on Attorney General Gonzales. While I've decried his cronyism, his manage-by-consensus style, his lying under oath to Congress, and his whithering excuses for the firing of the U.S. Attorneys, I've been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as to why those attorneys were actually fired. U.S. Attorneys, if you'll recall, do serve at the request of the President. If the President or his administration wants to fire them, then he can do so - even for political reasons or on a whim. The President has control over the matter.

However, I may have been too lenient. I've said that until evidence that runs to the contrary that these were just political maneuvers, then we have to give these dolts the benefit of the doubt. After all, they are innocent until proven guilty. The Wall Street Journal reports today:
As midterm elections approached last November, federal investigators in Arizona faced unexpected obstacles in getting needed Justice Department approvals to advance a corruption investigation of Republican Rep. Rick Renzi, people close to the case said.

The delays, which postponed key approvals in the case until after the election, raise new questions about whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or other officials may have weighed political issues in some investigations. The Arizona U.S. attorney then overseeing the case, Paul Charlton, was told he was being fired in December, one of eight federal prosecutors dismissed in the past year. The dismissals have triggered a wave of criticism and calls from Congress for Mr. Gonzales to resign.

...Complex investigations commonly take a year or more, and it isn't known what issues figured in the Renzi case. Many details remain shrouded in the secrecy of a Tucson grand jury that has been at work since last year. Court filings remain under seal. The precise sequence of events likely won't become public unless formal charges are filed.

But the investigation clearly moved slowly: Federal agents opened the case no later than June 2005, yet key witnesses didn't get subpoenas until early this year, those close to the case said. The first publicly known search -- a raid of a Renzi family business by the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- was carried out just last week.

...Normally, local U.S. attorneys may seek court approval for warrants and wiretaps without Washington's approval. But the Renzi case -- like many that involve members of Congress -- is being handled jointly by the local U.S. attorney and the department's public-integrity section. In such cases, a senior department official must approve requests for wiretaps and warrants and other formal legal steps.

People briefed on the case said investigators in Arizona asked Washington for clearance -- among other tools -- for a wiretap of Mr. Renzi's telephones, a highly unusual step against a sitting member of Congress, months before Election Day. The wiretap eventually was approved, and was in place by late October, these people said.

On Oct. 26, just days before the election, two political Web sites carried the first public word of the probe. In subsequent news accounts, an unidentified Washington law-enforcement official described the matter as "preliminary." Few details emerged, but the leak disrupted prosecutors' wiretap.

Meanwhile, Mr. Renzi, first elected to Congress in 2002, was fighting to hold on to his seat. In September, President Bush hosted a fund-raiser in Scottsdale on his behalf. About the same time Mr. Charlton was added to a list of prosecutors "we should now consider pushing out," wrote Mr. Gonzales's then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, in a Sept. 13, 2006, email to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers. The email is among thousands that the Justice Department has released in response to congressional inquiries into the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys.

In November, Mr. Renzi won re-election to a third term, beating his challenger by 51% to 44%. A month later, on Dec. 7, Mr. Charlton was told he was being dismissed. Two weeks later, he emailed William Mercer, a senior Justice Department official: "Media now asking if I was asked to resign over leak in Congressman Renzi investigation." He asked for advice, but never got a response, according to the emails released by the Justice Department.

That may or may not be a smoking gun, but it sure smells like it. Either some Republican operatives have decided to release this information and/or some people at the Justice department have done it. Either way, it looks bad for Gonzales at a minimum and VERY bad for the White House. Bush is being told: don't stand too close to this one. We'll see if A) he hears the message and heeds it and B) if the fire doesn't spread to somewhere near the Oval Office.

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